This story first appeared in The Star newspaper.
It is late morning in Namoruputh Primary School in Turkana, hot and dusty despite the wintertime. The school is close to the border with Uganda, which is lined by a ridge of high mountains on the horizon where rainclouds gather. Behind a classroom, a large satellite dish has been installed, surrounded by a makeshift fence of thorny branches, gathered from the bushes that punctuate the sandy ground.
Inside, teacher Mwangangi begins an unusual science lesson. He draws a diagram of a flower on the blackboard, but instead of telling the children the names of the parts of the flower, or handing out a textbook, he asks them to Google it. The children bend over their distinctive lime-coloured tablets, searching for images with the right information. Cecilia Akai, 13, raises her arm “Teacher, teacher,” she says. He gives her a chalk and she walks to the board, where she writes ‘stigma’ on the correct part of the flower. After naming all the parts of the flower, the teacher asks the children to research their functions and they break into groups, searching and discussing the results.
It is a more interactive scene than traditional Kenyan primary school lessons and the children are obviously enthusiastic. “When the Internet was connected, I was very happy and eager to know how to use it,” Cecilia says. “I prefer using the tablet to a textbook. It’s quicker and easier to use. I also like to watch videos of comedians. At home, I able to help my mother use the Internet on her phone.”
Her friend James Lokeny, 15, agrees. “After the Internet was installed, I was able to learn many more things,” he says. “I can find out what’s happening now in Kenya and look at maps and videos. I’ve been able to learn more on topics like engineering and wildlife. Already my grades have improved. When I grow up, I would like to become an engineer because there are very few in this country.”
Namoruputh Primary School is one of 110 schools connected to the Internet since 2020 by UNICEF, the Government of Kenya and partners, through the GIGA partnership. This has already provided Internet access for around 40,000 children, with the goal of connecting all schools in Kenya by 2030. The Government has provided more than 1 million tablets to public primary schools and the Internet connection allows learners to easily access updated content, including the latest lessons from the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development. Namoruputh School was connected by Liquid Telecom.
Globally, UNICEF’s ‘Reimagine Education’ initiative aims to revolutionise learning and foundational skills, to provide a quality education for every child, including through Internet connectivity and digital learning. This drive to expand digital learning has become even more essential following the COVID-19 pandemic and related school closures, which highlighted the digital divide between those who could access remote learning, and those who could not.
“A modern education should rebuild the basic skills that have been lost during school closures – maths, reading and writing – as well as developing the skills in problem solving, creativity and critical thinking that young people need to forge successful careers,” UNICEF Kenya’s Chief of Education Marilyn Hoar comments. “Here in Kenya, the new Competency Based Curriculum will provide school children with many of these skills including digital literacy, but we also need more teachers and more schools connected to the Internet. We believe that digital learning should be part of a basic package of essential services for every child.”
Science of teaching
After the science lesson at Namoruputh, teacher Mwangangi Kingoo reflects on the changes that the tablets and wi-fi connection have brought. “It has really been a game changer in the way we do our work as teachers,” he says. “It has changed the way I prepare for and deliver lessons. In the past, there were things that we struggled to explain to the children because they were abstract, but it is easier now. The Internet as a source of information also encourages self and peer-learning. The students can work on their own or in groups. You just give them a topic and they will do a lot of research and discover more. This has changed the attitude of the students and their performance.”
Mwangangi has seen first-hand the changes in children like James and Cecelia. “James has shown great improvement,” he says. “He used to struggle with low self-esteem. But with time, he’s become more confident. He can now use the tablets fast and help others. He’s among the best students in the class academically. He was even explaining to the class that he wants to be an engineer in the future – and this was from a video that he watched on the Internet.”
Compared to his generation, Mwangani says that the children in Standard 8 are growing up with more skills and understanding of the world. “As a child, I missed a lot,” he recalls. “My only source of information was the teacher and the textbooks. But for these students today, their world is bigger than ours. They’re not limited to where they are. And their ICT skills are very far ahead from where I was in primary school.”
After class, James walks with friends across the hot, dry ground towards a large wind turbine that towers over the school buildings. His enthusiasm for the engineering work involved is clear. “The wind turbine is important because it helps us get water when it’s dry,” he says. “Don’t get too close though, it has a danger sign on it. I think it’s because the turbines are heavy.”
It is clear that, with James’s ambition and enthusiasm, access to the Internet and the knowledge and ICT skills this brings, his future and that of his classmates is bright.